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Peak Cavs: Why Atlanta Doesn’t Stand a Chance Against This Version of Cleveland

Getty Images
Getty Images

The Hawks-Cavaliers series begins the Atlanta leg of the tour tonight, but it’s fair to wonder if we’ve seen all we need to see. Cleveland looks like a team with the Warriors in its crosshairs; the Hawks return home with their ironclad defense reduced to shrapnel. Somehow, the Hawks are being blindsided by the team that ruined their fairy tale the first time around.

Atlanta is caught in a perfect storm, which ironically starts with a point of weakness for the Cavaliers. There is something of a leaguewide mandate to play off of LeBron James: Why guard someone who has made only 25 percent of his 3-point attempts during this postseason and last? His 3-point shot was abducted and is now presumed dead. But LeBron is too brilliant a passer to be gifted unobstructed vantage points. Some of the most effective lineups the Cavaliers have trotted out this series surround LeBron with four shooters — and the team as a whole is answering his call. After ranking top three in 3-pointers made and attempted during the regular season, they’re now averaging seven more 3-point attempts per game than the Warriors in the playoffs and drilling them at an absurd 45 percent clip. We are witnessing Peak Cavs.

While it behooves Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer to make defensive adjustments to account for the Cavs’ unconscionable 3-point shooting, there is a limit to how far Atlanta can betray its identity before the team enters a Cavs-induced fugue state. The Hawks defense is a reflection of their team-first identity: They cluster together like a man-of-war, sealing access to the paint with swarms and traps before allowing their tentacles to jut out at shooters on the perimeter. But it’s a scheme that invites activity behind the arc, which is to say, it falls right into the hands of James. Budenholzer’s system necessitates precision, communication, and endurance — all of which can erode when the Cavs continue to drop morale-deadening 3s.

Game 2 of the Hawks-Cavaliers second-round series felt like déjà vu for a very specific kind of NBA pervert — the blowout fetishist. See, the Cavs had done this to the Hawks before. In a mid-November game against Atlanta last season, Cleveland set an NBA record for most 3-pointers made in a quarter without missing (nine), and what was then the franchise record for most 3-pointers made in a game (19) in a 127–94 win. The Cavs have since broken the latter record twice during these playoffs: in Game 2 and exactly two weeks earlier against Detroit.

The Hawks have gone through one and a half life cycles since that 2014 blowout. They were the league’s utopian darling before crashing back down to earth after a crippling late-season malaise. This season marked a quieter excellence, and their regular-season success didn’t fully reach a head until the latter stages. Now Atlanta finds itself circling back to familiar traumas: enduring one of the greatest 3-point shooting displays in history, and the unsettling prospect of getting swept by the Cavaliers once again.

This piece originally appeared in the May 6, 2016, edition of the Ringer newsletter.